Friday, January 13, 2012
Waiting departure at Washington National Airport, the Boeing 737 carrying 79 souls was destined for Florida on January 13th 1982. With snow falling and the air temperature at 24 °F, ice began forming on the aircraft. The plane was de-iced with chemical anti-freeze, but still had difficulty moving away from the gate due to the buildup. Eventually making it to the runway, it was forced to wait 45 minutes for clearance.
Not wanting to further delay the flight, the pilot did not return for more de-icing and failed to turn on the plane's own de-icing system. Ice continued to accumulate on the wings and by the time the plane reached the end of the runway, it was able to achieve only a few hundred feet of altitude. Thirty seconds after take off, warning lights and alarms activated in the cockpit and the pilots quickly realized the plane would crash.
The following is from the recovered cockpit voice recorder:
16:00:48 CAM-1 Come on forward....forward, just barely climb.
16:00:59 CAM-1 Stalling, we're falling!
16:01:00 CAM-2 This is it. We're going down, Larry....
16:01:01 CAM-1 I know it!
16:01:01 [SOUND OF IMPACT]
The plane crashed into the 14th Street Bridge over the Potomac River, less than a mile away from the runway. Seven vehicles traveling on the bridge were struck before the plane crashed into the icy water. As emergency workers arrived, it quickly became clear there was nothing they could do. With the DCFD and police boats unable to reach the site due to ice, it was not until the arrival of Eagle 1 at 1620hrs, a United States Park Police helicopter based in DC that the real rescue effort began.
Hovering above the wreckage, the two crew members could see six survivors clinging to debris in hopes of staying afloat. Holding onto the tail section of the broken airliner, flight attendantKelly Duncan passed the only flotation device to one of the more severely injured passengers, Nikki Felch. Her boss, Joe Stiley, was assisting her and fellow survivor Priscilla Tirado. He was trying to tow them to shore with thehelp of the helicopter by holding onto a dropped rope and life ring. Stiley, who received broken arms and fingers from the crash, lost his grip on both women and was brought to shore. The helicopter returned to rescue Felch and did so, leaving Tirado as the last reachable victim. Exhausted and blind by jet fuel, Tirado now began to slowly drown mere feet from the shoreline. Just before slipping below, Lenny Skutnik, a civilian watching from the shore, jumped into the water and rescued Tirado, making the days dramatic events historic.
Although the 737 did manage to become airborne for only 30 seconds, it reached a maximum altitude of just 352’ before falling. At 1601hrs it crashed into the 14th Street Bridge. The incident would take 78 lives, including four occupants of vehicles struck on the bridge.
The National Transportation Safety Board determined that the probable cause of the crash was pilot error, stating the flight crew’s failure to use anti-ice during ground operation and takeoff, coupled with their decision to take off with ice on the wings of the aircraft was detrimental to the crash.
Two people in particular emerged as heroes during the rescue- Arland Williams and Lenny Skutnik. Known as the "sixth passenger," Williams survived the crash, and passed on lifelines from the helicopter to others rather than taking one for himself. He ended up being the only passenger to die from drowning.
On June 6 1983, Skutnik along with Williams’s family was awarded the United States Coast Guard's Gold Lifesaving Medal in a White HouseOval Office presentation by President Ronald Reagan and the Secretary of Transportation. Furthermore, the 14th Street Bridge was later renamed the Arland D. Williams Jr. Memorial Bridge.
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